Why The Loss of Live Music Hurts The Most

Producer Avery Kleinman worked on personal shows before. But working on COVID-19’s impact on the live music industry brought her to tears.

Producer Avery Kleinman loves live music. This photo is from 2017, when she saw Umphrey's McGee at Red Rocks Park and Amphitheater in Colorado.

By Avery Kleinman

During a recent conversation with a potential 1A guest, I found myself on the verge of tears for the first time. I swallowed them back, but when the call ended, I walked to my couch. I sat down, put my face in my hands and sobbed.

As a 1A producer, I’ve covered difficult topics before, like sexual assault or family estrangement. I brought personal experience to both of those shows, but I remained level-headed while I worked on them.

But I couldn’t stay composed as I dove into my latest topic: what the coronavirus pandemic means for the live music industry. I’ve gone to concerts on a near-weekly basis for almost seven years. Live music has given me some of the brightest moments of my life. And I realized that it’s the loss that hurts me the most.

Even though concerts kept me up late on weeknights, they ultimately helped my career. Following the death of a college student who took MDMA, I wrote my first investigative story about potentially dangerous conditions at the venue where it happened.

The memories are personal, too. At my first multi-day live music festival, I stood in the crowd watching Avicii with my then-boyfriend. I felt more in love with him than I’d ever felt before. That relationship is over now, but I’ll always have the feeling. Live music gave me that.

I’ve adjusted to other aspects of social distancing. I jog outside instead of going to the gym. Slack and virtual happy hours ease the challenge of working remotely. I’m looking forward to returning to bars and restaurants, but I don’t yearn for them. I feel the absence of live music aching inside of me.

It’s impossible to recreate the feeling of when the band or DJ is playing my favorite song — the one I was hoping to hear — and the people around me are dancing and singing along too. It’s temporary but addicting. That high is why I go to concerts, and it’s why I miss them the most.

When social distancing started, my friends and I attended virtual music festivals. We donned our wigs, collected over years of raves, and danced in front of the cameras, staring into screens as our blue and pink strands shook to the beat.

But we haven’t done that lately. On 1A, U Street Music Hall owner Will Eastman compared livestreams to a “cold flame.” I agree. The virtual festivals reminded me too much of what I didn’t have. The Zoom fatigue overpowered the pull of the virtual rave.

After I got off the phone, I cried for myself, but I also cried for the people who work in the live music industry who are now facing an unpredictable and incomprehensible future. The musicians are affected, but so are the road crews, managers, lighting and set designers, promoters, venue owners and so many others.

They’re at home, unable to know when they’ll be able to put on events again. Those people chose to work in an industry that often doesn’t pay well for the love of music — the same love that I have.

They brought me the highlights of my life and got little credit. I’m so grateful to them because that’s something I can understand. As a radio producer, I’m the person behind the scenes, working hard to make what the host does look effortless.

I am grateful, too, for summer nights at music festivals when I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, felt the breeze on my face and felt infinite. I am grateful for the opportunity to be myself.

Live music will return. It’s part of what it means to be human. But it will undoubtedly be different after all this. We may have to wait until fall 2021, limit capacity, or wear face masks. It will look different, but it’ll be back. I’ll be waiting.

In the meantime, I think I’m ready to attend another virtual music festival. A cold flame can still give some warmth. Let me go get my wig.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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